No city has inspired as many songs or served as the backdrop for as many TV shows as New York City. A heady jungle of giant skyscrapers, big attitude, and vibrant diversity, New York has a unique atmosphere and a dizzying energy that makes it one of the most exhilarating cities in the world. There’s something cinematic or songworthy unfolding on every busy avenue – every New York minute.
Rich as they are in chutzpah, grit, humor and heart, New Yorkers aren’t famous for being the most instantly polite people in the world, so planning your itinerary in advance is always a good idea. Stopping a local in the street to ask a newbie question is likely to be met with a swift “I’m walkin here”, or some colorful equivalent.
For every iconic landmark you see in the movies, there’s a hidden gem you have to dig a bit to find. So if you’re planning a Big Apple break, and are looking for some ways to be a part of it, use this handy guide to discover the famously cool and unusual things to do in New York, along with some of the leeser-known nearby attractions you might pass by in the hectic rush of the city.
First things first: Manhattan is massive! But it’s easy to navigate once you understand its handy grid layout. Numbered streets go from east to west, while avenues run from north to south. Walking is certainly an option, So get out, explore, and soak up the city on foot. A big yellow taxi ride in a New York cab is another must, and you haven’t done New York until you’ve joined the (literal) subway rat race!
If you don’t trust your sense of direction, or want to pack in as much sightseeing as humanly possible, jump aboard the eternally convenient Hop-on Hop-off sightseeing bus that ferries you from one iconic landmark to the next with minimum fuss. There are some truly awesome and unique things to see along the way. You might have heard of some.
Cool & Unusual Things to Do in
Art Deco Meets Giant Angry Gorilla
Maybe the most instantly recognisable skyscraper in the world, the Empire State Building is the centerpiece of New York’s epic skyline. The climbing frame of choice for gigantic rampaging gorilla (and Hollywood darling) King Kong, the 1,454-foot-tall tower is perhaps less sparklingly pretty than the similar Art Deco architecture of the nearby Chrysler Building. However, the Empire State pips its glass-spired sister-building in terms of sheer scale and fame.
Standing atop the Empire State Building is one of the most breathtaking experiences you can have in Manhattan. Its Midtown location affords truly remarkable views over the entire city. Inside, the classy Art Deco aesthetic pervades, and its burgundy-uniformed staff are a friendly bunch with reassuring New York patois that only add to the experience. Fuggedaboutit!
There’s no shortage of supertall skyscrapers in New York, or indeed around the world. But the Empire State Building is unique in that it’s the only one with a dedicated King Kong exhibition!
A candidate for one of the most cool and unusual things to do in New York, it’s an absolute must for kids or anyone with a penchant for monster movies. This lighthearted exhibit projects hair-raising footage of the chopper-chomping gorilla onto the windows, as he clambers up the outside of the tower in a less-than-convivial mood. Meanwhile real giant gorilla hands appear to crash through the walls, providing one of New York’s coolest selfie opportunities. Monkey see, monkey do!
What a One-derful World
It’s hardly surprising that the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere offers some pretty decent views, but One World Observatory is more than just a lofty lookout point. A symbol of unity, courage, and defiance in the face of terror, One World Trade Center rose from the rubble of 9/11 to replace the iconic Twin Towers with a single, beautiful monolith that stretches 1,776 feet into the sky over Manhattan.
At the top, you’ll be greeted by a knee-weakening panorama of Downtown Manhattan and beyond. The observation deck itself is spread across three storeys, with a glass-floored walking platform providing a stomach-churning bird’s-eye view of the bustling street scene 500 meters below. The breathtaking views are complemented by cool multimedia exhibits and a chic skylounge, meaning you can enjoy a leisurely stay at the top of the world.
At the bottom of the tower, you’ll also find the solemn 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which offers a deeply moving journey into the events that changed New York and the wider world forever.
A Secret Garden with a View
Lower Manhattan has dozens of awesome sightseeing spots, with Trinity Church, the Woolworth Building, 40 Wall Street, New York City Hall, 8 Spruce Street, and Wall Street’s Charging Bull and Fearless Girl statues, all within 15 minutes’ walk of One World Observatory. But hidden amidst these iconic landmarks is one of the city’s best-kept secrets, and another of the very cool and unsuual things to do in New York: the Elevated Acre!
As the name suggests, the Elevated Acre is a raised one-acre meadow of green space and gardens. What makes it unusual, however, is that it’s located amidst the hustle-bustle of New York’s frenetic financial district! You could easily miss this hidden gem, as its inconspicuous entrance is often shrouded in scaffolding and construction.
Ascend the escalator at 55 Water Street and you’ll be lifted into a secret oasis of beer gardens, lawns, and flower beds, as well as a pretty sweet view out over the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge. Mood, elevated!
See a Genuinely Moving Statue
No landmark can hold a candle to Lady Liberty. As American an emblem as bald eagles, apple pie, and monster truck destruction derbies, the Statue of Liberty (or, Liberty Enlightening the World, to give her full name) is a huge copper statue of the Roman goddess of freedom, Libertas, that was gifted to America by France in 1886.
She was designed and built by French sculptors Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and good old Gustave Eiffel (who had a thing for building iconic monuments). Since then, she has served as a symbol of liberty and sanctuary for “tired huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, as the sonnet by Emma Lazarus emblazoned on her base proclaims.
Nothing says “living my best life in New York” like a cruise around the Hudson to Liberty Island. You’ll get some epic shots of the whole Manhattan skyline shimmering on the water, as well as an up-close-and-personal audience with the most famous big green statue in the world. When sailing by, you will quite literally be following the footsteps of millions of immigrants who helped build America, making it more than just a tourist attraction; it’s a real piece of history that symbolizes the fabled American Dream more than anything else in the US.
Fun fact: As Lady Liberty is made of copper, she was initially a dull brown color, and only gained her elegant green patina over the course of about 30 years. When she first started breaking out in minty green patches, Congress allotted $62,800 to have her painted! After much loud public outcry (New Yorkers don’t do subdued outcry), the decision was reversed, and the statue’s lovely oxidation stain remains!
About Those Tired Huddled Masses…
Inspirational poems and handsome statues are all very well and good, but the reality of emigration tends to be somewhat less rosy, especially for anybody who has ever tried to start a new life in New York. If the Statue of Liberty symbolizes the American Dream, the Tenement Museum chronicles the American reality.
Step inside this extraordinary and poignent museum and you’ll be instantly transported back in time. A former tenement building itself, the museum has been meticulously restored to the cramped, gritty living conditions of the 19th and early 20th-century New York. Real stories from the actual families who lived in the building make for a deeply moving experience, and you’ll leave with a newfound respect for the grit and sacrifice of America’s immigrant backbone.
Amisdt all the other cool and unusal things to do in New York, this emtionally stirring musuem is testament to the generations of indefatigable immigrants to helped to build it all.
So Much Neon!
Let’s face it, nobody wants to be that typical tourist making passersby cartwheel and duck to avoid your flailing selfie stick. But sometimes, you just have to strap on a fanny pack, buy an ‘I❤️NY’ t-shirt, and let that inner tourist out for some air. Times Square is your safe space!
This mad rabble of starstruck tourists, naked cowboys, giant billboards, and glitzy theatres on the junction of Broadway and Seventh Avenue is a rite of passage for sightseers looking to soak up the mad buzz of Manhattan – and snap the all-important pictures to prove it. The neon frenzy of Times Square has been immortalised in popular culture over the years, featuring in more Hollywood blockbusters than Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson combined!
Most New Yorkers tend to avoid Times Square at all hours of the day (except on New Year’s Eve, when it turns into the most happening party on planet Earth), so you don’t need to worry about sassy side-eye raining on your parade. A raised stepping platform provides the perfect vantage point to observe the mayhem of honking taxis, extravagant street performers, milling crowds, and enormous advertising billboards. Soak it all in!
You’ll be perfectly placed to explore the adjacent theatre district, or grab a drink or dinner in your pick of the surrounding bars and restaurants, some of which are genuine cultural gems in their own right. But if you’re looking for something more off the beaten track, fear not…
The World is Your Oyster!
What better way to balance out all that shameless tourist pageantry than washing it all away with the briny taste of New York cool. Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant is, as you might imagine, located inside New York’s famous Grand Central Station – a sightseeing must in itself, thanks to its gorgeous celestial ceiling mural. This underground oyster and wine bar is something of an institution.
An atmospheric cellar with vaulted tiled ceilings and low-hanging archways (with uncanny whispering-gallery acoustics), this is one of the hippest spots in New York and the home of the finest oysters in town.
If for any reason, the slimy slimy sea salt flavor of oysters isn’t your idea of a good time, you can also avail of the extensive seafood menu. Either way, simply sitting back with a drink and a few nibbles in this underground grotto of hipness makes for a unique New York experience.
See the Greatest Shows on Earth
Standing alongside London’s West End as the most famous theatre district in the world, the razzle-dazzle glamour and atmosphere of Broadway is a pillar of New York’s buzzing nightlife, and one of the city’s essential experiences. With the most talented stage actors in the world playing smash-hit musicals like Wicked, Aladdin, Chicago, The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, as well as Shakespearean epics, Beckett, and bold new productions, the bright lights of Broadway have something for everyone. Make sure you see at least one show while you’re in town.
Ellen’s Stardust Diner!
If you’re looking for an extra-special dining experience that captures the manic energy and exuberant soul of New York, look no further than this timeless Times Square diner. Akin to Jack Rabbit Slim’s in Pulp Fiction, Ellen’s Stardust Diner is a 1950s-themed restaurant (or, a wax museum with a pulse!) located at 1650 Broadway, and eating here is easily one of the most cool and unusual things to do in New York.
Inside, it’s wall-to-wall kitsch, with retro memorabilia, neon lights, and disco balls assaulting your senses from every conceivable angle. It also boasts what is arguably the finest American diner food in the whole city. But that’s only half the reason why Ellen’s is such a New York institution… Enter an all-singing, all-dancing cast of Broadway wait staff!
Most of the crew at Ellen’s are either aspiring or working Broadway actors and singers. And as you chew, you’ll be treated to soaring renditions of some of the most famous musical numbers in the world, as the staff hop up on the bar, or gather ensemble at the balconies to belt out the biggest hits from the biggest musicals in town, with participation being highly encouraged. The entertainment at Ellen’s is as good as the food. And trust us, that is high praise!
Park your worries
While frantic hustle and bustle is all part-and-parcel of the New York groove, sometimes it’s good to escape the noisy traffic jams, rattling subways, and peppy wait staff pumping power-ballads directly into your milkshake-frozen brain, to rest the soul in the calm bosom of nature. Most megacities tend to be short on natural tranquility, but luckily Manhattan has the answer to those big city blues in the form of Central Park, an 843-acre green space located smack-bang in the centre of the city!
Easily one of the most filmed locations in the world, like much of New York, Central Park has an uncanny way of feeling familiar, even if you’ve never set foot inside. Perfect for couples, families, and friends on adventure, the park is massive and brimming with things to do. Feeling amorous? Take a romantic stroll where Harry met Sally, or better yet, a romantic bike ride! Have kids that need entertaining? Let them go wild at the zoo! Fancy a more unsual walk in the park?Join a dramatized history tour with a guide wearing full period costume!
Get your skates on!
From late October to early April, you can really impress a date, or the kids, with a slip-sliding visit to Central Park’s Woolman Rink. The scene of crooked crime duo Harry and Marv’s devious scheming in Home Alone 2, the beloved ice rink is framed by a huddle of Midtown highrise, and makes for a magical New York City skating experience. If you’re in the city during the warmer months, however, you’ll have to console yourself with the pop-up amusement park that replaces the rink in New York’s summer swelter. Oh well!
Another swell place to counter the concrete is the New York Botanical Garden, a peaceful 250-acre oasis nestled in The Bronx. The garden is home to hundreds of beautiful exotic flower species, as well as 200 cherry trees and magnolias wound around a labyrinth of snaking pathways and immense greenhouses. It’s a symphony of wonderful colours and smells that’ll make you forget you’re in the most densely populated city in the United States. At least for a little while!
Museums for Everyone!
New York City is home to not just one, but a slew of the finest museums in the world. From world-class art museums to more niche cultural repositories and kid-friendly attractions, there is genuinely something for everyone – fine art, dinosaurs, and everything in between. Feast your eyes on the best museums in New York
The Largest Art Collection You’ve Ever Met!
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or simply the Met, is the largest art museum in the United States, and it will take you on a trip to every corner of the world and through every period in history, with thousands of pieces of priceless art and ancient artefacts. It can be overwhelming, but luckily it’s organized by theme, so you can focus on the areas you’re keen to explore.
On par with the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Rijksmuseum, and the Prado, the Met contains some of the world’s best-known paintings, with works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, El Greco, Edgar Degas, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jackson Pollock, Raphael, Francisco Goya, and many more.
It’s more than a massive art gallery though; it’s a time capsule of human history, with entire wings dedicated to immersive historical exhibitions. The Period Rooms are a must-see, adorned with original (or meticulously recreated) examples of interior design throughout the ages. There’s an opulent grand salon of Louis XIV, an ancient Roman bedroom buried by the eruption of Vesuvius, fixtures from colonial American homes, and an Egyptian collection featuring statues, mummy cases, and even a temple to the goddess Isis.
And IIIIIIIIIIII, will always love Muuuuuseums!
The second-best Whitney to ever come out of the New York/New Jersey area, The Whitney Museum of American Art houses 21,000 works by 3,000 American artists across a wide range of media. Here, you’ll find paintings, sculptures, drawings, videos, photography and new media, and get an insight into how American creative genius has manifested itself from 1900 to today.
Andy Warhol might be the most iconic name among the artists featured, but you’ll also get to meet other 20th-century titans such as Jasper Johns, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Edward Hopper.
Featuring one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of modern art, including pieces by the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh, Warhol, Pollock, and many, many more, the MoMA is one of the most visited places in New York. This influential museum provides a portal into the sometimes less-than-accessible world of modern art.
If iconic masterpieces are your thing, the MoMA will blow you away. It’s home to some of the world’s best-known artworks, including Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, and many more cool and unusual modern art chin-scratchers.
Nothing Rhymes with Guggenheim!
Another world-famous art museum? Sure! Why not! The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum needs no introduction. The beehive-shaped museum designed by master architect Frank Lloyd Wright is very much an artwork in itself, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.
Inside, a treasure trove of modern, abstract, and contemporary paintings and sculptures are displayed in dazzling white galleries that spiral upwards towards a huge domed ceiling. The Guggenheim contains the world’s largest collection of Wassily Kandinsky works and rich holdings of works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Joan Miró, alongside many others.
T-Rex > Art
Let’s face it, children and art museums generally mix together like oil and water. So, if you want to enjoy the magnificent oil and watercolors of the above museums without having to physically drag your child along by their ankle, it’s a good idea to butter them up with a trip to a more kid-friendly museum first! Bribery is key!
The American Museum of Natural History is guaranteed to capture every curious child’s imagination, or fascinate anyone, young or old, with even a passing interest in the natural world. A gigantic building filled with state-of-the-art science exhibitions that explore the origins of the cosmos, the diversity of life on Earth and it’s incredible fossil record, and just about everything else in between.
Best of all, of course, are the museum’s towering dinosaur skeletons, of which there are over 100. These include enormous herbivores like the aptly named titanosaur, triceratops, and stegosaurus, plus the more notorious predators like velociraptors, allosaurus, and of course, the noblest of all creatures ever to walk this planet, the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex!
Muppets, Movies, Videogames – Now You’re Talking!
You’ll have to go a bit out of Manhattan for this one, but it’s worth the journey. Located in the borough of Queens, the Museum of the Moving Image is a uniquely cool museum dedicated to the history, techniques, and technology of film, television, and other forms of visual media. The museum is fittingly kitted out with high-tech exhibitions, and after a $67 million expansion in 2011, it’s still got that new museum smell! It’s the perfect way to make it up to the kids after an art-appreciation marathon.
As well as providing a fascinating in-depth journey into the history of film, which culture buffs can sink hours into, the Museum of the Moving Image also has some decidedly kid-friendly permanent exhibitions. A dedicated video games exhibition charts the evolution of video games from the earliest computers to the latest cutting-edge games. The best part? The museum actively encourages interaction, so kids can sample some of the most iconic and influential games ever created.
In 2017, the museum opened the Jim Henson Exhibition, a permanent exhibition that pays homage to the life of Jim Henson and his imaginative creations, such as the Muppets and Sesame Street. A colorful and moving feast for the senses, the Jim Henson Exhibition will appeal to kids’ sense of humor and parents’ sense of nostalgia in equal measure.
Ever dreamed of contorting your tuxedoed body into unnatural shapes to navigate a laser-beam alarm system, before skiing down the side of an erupting volcano with attack helicopters in hot pursuit? SPYSCAPE is the museum for you!
SPYSCAPE delves into the fascinating arena of real-world espionage, with highly interactive exhibits that detail the ins and outs of spying, letting you try your hand at everything from computer hacking to interrogation techniques, human lie-detection, infiltration, and yes, lasers!